Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Digby, Everard (1578-1606)

DIGBY, Sir EVERARD (1578–1606), conspirator, son of Everard Digby of Stoke Dry, Rutland, by Maria, daughter and coheiress of Francis Neale of Keythorpe, Leicestershire, was born on 16 May 1578, and was in his fourteenth year when his father died on 24 Jan. 1592. It is a common error to identify his father with Everard Digby, divine and author [q. v.] His wardship was purchased from the crown by Roger Manners, esq., of the family of the Earl of Rutland, and probably re-sold at an advanced price to young Digby's mother. The heir to large estates in Rutland, Leicestershire, and Lincolnshire, and connected with many of the most considerable families in England, it was only to be expected that he should present himself at the queen's court. While still a youth he was appointed to some office in the household, which John Gerard, the jesuit father [q. v.], probably erroneously, describes as ‘being one of the queen's gentlemen-pensioners.’ His great stature and bodily strength, however, made him an adept at all field sports, and he spent the greater part of his time in the country hunting and hawking. In 1596 he married Mary, only daughter and heiress of William Mulsho of Goathurst, Buckinghamshire, and obtained with her a large accession of fortune. About 1599 Digby fell under the influence of John Gerard, who soon acquired an extraordinary sway over him. They became close friends and companions, their friendship being strengthened by the conversion of Digby to the ‘catholic doctrine and practice,’ which was soon followed by the adhesion of Digby's wife and his mother. When James I came to England, Digby joined the crowd of those who welcomed the new king at Belvoir Castle, and received the honour of knighthood there on 23 April 1603. How bitterly the Romish party were disappointed by the attitude assumed by James in the following year; how their bitterness and anger made a small section of them furious and desperate; how the Gunpowder plot grew into more and more definite shape, and how the mad scheme exercised a kind of fascination over the imagination of the small band of frenzied gentlemen who were deeply implicated in it, may be read in the histories of the time, and best of all in Mr. Gardiner's first volume. Unlike Catesby, Rookwood, Tresham, and others more or less cognisant of the conspiracy, Digby had never had anything to complain of in the shape of persecution at the hands of the government. It is probable that both his parents were catholics, but they had never been disturbed for their convictions, and their son had evidently suffered no great inconvenience for conscience' sake. In the arrangements that were made by the conspirators Digby was assigned a part which kept him at a distance from London, and there are some indications that he was not trusted so implicitly as the rest. The plan agreed upon was that Faux should fire the train with a slow match, and at once make off to Flanders. Percy was to seize the person of Prince Henry or his brother Charles, with the co-operation of the others, who were all in London or the suburbs, and was to carry him off with all speed to Warwickshire. Meanwhile Digby was to co-operate by preparing for a rising in the midlands when the catastrophe should have been brought about; and it was settled that he should invite a large number of the disaffected gentry to meet him at Dunchurch in Warwickshire, and join in a hunting expedition on Dunsmoor Heath (near Rugby), where, it was whispered, strange news might be expected. This gathering was fixed for Tuesday, 5 Nov. 1605. On Monday the 4th, about midnight, Faux was apprehended by Sir Thomas Knyvett as he was closing the door of the cellar under the parliament house, where thirty-six barrels of gunpowder had been placed in readiness for the explosion intended on the morrow. The game was up; and before daybreak some of the conspirators had taken horse; and all were riding furiously to the place of meeting before the great secret had become common property. The meeting of the catholic gentry at Dunchurch had evidently not been a success, and when, late in the evening, Catesby, Rookwood, Percy, and the Wrights burst in, haggard, travel-soiled, and half dead with their astonishing ride [see Catesby, Robert], it became clear that there had been some desperate venture which had ended only in a crushing failure, the gentry who were not in the plot dispersed rapidly to their several homes, and the plotters were left to take their chance. The almost incredible strength and endurance of Catesby and his accomplices appears from the fact that on that very night (after a ride of eighty miles in seven or eight hours, for Rookwood had not left London till eleven o'clock in the morning) they started again before ten o'clock, and were at Huddington in Worcestershire by two o'clock the next afternoon, having broken into a cavalry stable at Warwick in the middle of the night and helped themselves to fresh horses for the distance that lay before them. On Thursday night, the 7th, they had reached Holbeach House in Staffordshire, and then it was determined to make a stand and sell their lives as dearly as they could. Next morning Digby deserted his companions; he says his object was to make a diversion elsewhere, and to attempt to bring up some assistance to prop, if possible, the falling cause. Shortly after he had gone the terrible explosion of gunpowder occurred, and the fight which ended in the death or apprehension of the whole band. Meanwhile Digby soon found that it was impossible to escape the notice of his pursuers, who were speedily upon his track, and thinking it best to dismiss his attendants, he told his servants they might keep the horses they were riding, and distributed among them the money they were carrying—let each man shift for himself. Two of them refused to leave him, one being his page, William Ellis by name, who eventually became a lay brother of the Society of Jesus. The three struck into a wood where there was a dry pit, in which they hoped to conceal themselves and their horses. They were soon discovered, and a cry was raised, ‘Here he is! here he is!’ Digby, altogether undaunted, answered, ‘Here he is indeed, what then?’ and advanced his horse in the manner of curvetting, which he was expert in, and thought to have borne them over, and so to break from them. Seeing, however, that resistance was useless, he gave himself up, and before many days found himself a prisoner in the Tower. Two miserable months passed before the prisoners were brought to trial. At last, on 27 Jan. 1606, Digby, with eight others who had been caught red-handed, was brought to Westminster Hall. He behaved with some dignity during the trial, but there could be no doubt about the verdict, and on Thursday, the 30th, he was drawn upon a hurdle, with three of his accomplices, to St. Paul's Churchyard, and there hanged and slaughtered with the usual ghastly barbarities. On the scaffold he had confessed his guilt with a manly shame for his infatuation, and a solemn protest that Father Gerard had never known of the plot, adding, ‘I never durst tell him of it, for fear he would have drawn me out of it.’ It is impossible for any candid reader of all the evidence that has come down to us to doubt the truth of this protest. Garnett's complicity cannot be questioned, and his subsequent equivocation was as impolitic as it was discreditable. Father Gerard was a very different man. If the plot had been revealed to him, it would never have been permitted to go as far as it did.

Digby left two sons behind him; the younger, Sir John Digby, was knighted in 1635 and became a major-general on the king's side during the civil war. He is said to have been slain 9 July 1645. The elder son was the much more famous Sir Kenelm Digby, of whom an account will be found sub nomine. Digby's wife survived him many years, as did his mother, and neither appears to have married again.

[Chancery Inquisitiones post mortem, 34th Eliz. pt. i. No. 64 (Rutland), in the Record Office; Books of the Court of Wards and Liveries, No. 158, u. s.; Harl. MS. 1364; Cal. State Papers, Domestic, 1603–10; Hist. MSS. Comm. 8th Rep. 434; Foley's Records of the English Province S. J., vol. ii.; John Morris's Condition of Catholics under James I., 1872, vol. ii., and the same writer's Life of Father John Gerard, 3rd edit. 1881; Bishop Robert Abbot's Antilogia, 1613; Cooper's Athenæ Cantab. ii. 146; Jardine's Narrative of the Gunpowder Plot, 1857; Gardiner's Hist. of England, vol. i. Digby's mother is called Maria in the usual pedigrees of the family, but in the Inq. post mort. she is called Mary Ann, probably by a clerical error.]

A. J.